LAUREL — For the first time in what seems like forever, the Jim McKay Maryland Million Day did not take place under the cloud of uncertainty that has hung over the state’s racing industry and dampened the spirits of horseman and racing fans alike.
There was a definite buzz around Laurel Park on Saturday when Maryland-bred thoroughbreds competed for big purses, and not just because of the quality of the races and the perfect fall weather.
This was the first big racing event since the deal was struck that could lead to the reconstruction of both Laurel and Pimlico Race Course and guarantee that the Preakness Stakes will remain in Baltimore permanently.
It isn’t a done deal, but soon after the John Servis-trained Forest Fire won the Maryland Million Classic in an exciting duel to the wire with Prendimi, there was talk around the winner’s circle about the impact the tentative agreement seemed to have on the ambiance at Laurel’s signature event.
“Without a doubt,” said Mike Pons of Country Life Farms, whose stallion Friesan Fire sired the winner. “We have a tailwind now instead of a headwind and it makes such a big difference. I see things for Maryland racing that we’ve never seen before.”
Friesan Fire also sired the Saratoga Bob, who won last year’s Classic and drew the first post for Saturday’s featured race but did not hit the board this time.
“This is a sire’s day,” Pons said. “You know, Jim McKay created this 35 years ago just for moments like this. Maryland stallions have kind of been overlooked a little bit and days like today put you front and center.”
Forest Fire and Prendimi quickly turned this year’s Classic into match race, with jockey Paco Lopez holding Forest Fire just off the lead for most of the race before taking the coming out of the final turn and holding on to win by half a length.
“John [Servis] told me, ‘Paco, put the horse right there,' " Lopez said. "'You have a very good post so if somebody wants to go crazy, let them go and you can sit second or third.’ I just wanted to see how the race played out. I had great position and the pace was good, and turning for home he was just going easy and was able to hold off that horse.”
Forest Fire is owned by Shirley Lojeski, but Pons enjoyed every moment as if it were his own, very much like a man watching his grandson pitch in the World Series.
“It kind of validates who you are as far as being a Maryland stallion — or owner, or trainer, or jockey. If you win on Maryland Million Day, it legitimizes what you do for a living. It’s really been fun. This was a horse that was going to go to Kentucky and we talked them into coming to Maryland.”
Forest Fire went off as the second favorite. Clubman, which finished third in last year’s Maryland Million Classic, left the gate under jockey Julian Pimentel at the lowest odds, but didn’t really fire and finished a disappointing seventh.
Pimentel was also on heavy favorite My Sistersledge in the $125,000 guaranteed Maryland Million Ladies four races earlier, but came up short by a nose to Zonda and jockey Victor Carrasco.
It wasn’t a day full of big surprises, but there was one in particular. Port Louis, ridden by Avery Whisman, went off at 32-1 in the fifth race of the afternoon and outdistanced second-favorite Sparty by 1 1/2 lengths to win the Maryland Million Starters Handicap.
We’ll have to wait and see if this new era of good feelings surrounding Maryland racing will survive the horsetrading that will have to happen at the legislative level to turn the Pimlico/Laurel renovation deal into a reality, but Pons said he is keeping a good thought.
“It’s kind of cool," he said. "Brick by brick we’re rebuilding this game. Today has to be perhaps the biggest crowd I’ve ever seen here on Maryland Million Day. It reminds me of the old D.C. International when 40,000 people came down here. Not that big a crowd, but still plenty and a lot of fun.
“I’m excited for this event and the plans for Maryland racing. Pinch me. I couldn’t wait to hear about a new Pimlico and it might happen, and to see Laurel host a Breeders Cup. It’s just an interesting time for Maryland racing and the Maryland community.”
“There’s some magic in it,” Mike Pons said.